WHAT TO WEAR
First things first - the Pyrenees are on the whole a perfectly safe place to walk as as long as you take basic precautions, so your chances of ever encountering an emergency situation are minuscule. However, as the French say, au cas où ...
... we strongly advise carrying a mobile phone with you on all walks, although those walking in remote areas or at altitude may well find themselves outside network coverage. And it’s always a good idea to leave a note in your barn of your walking plans and your expected time of return, especially if you're setting off for a high altitude or longer walk. We can provide you with an emergency kit containing compass, whistle, headlight and survival blanket on request.
The emergency phone number is 112.
Most walking paths are suitable for dogs, with two exceptions: those in the Réserve du Mont Valier and in the Réserve d’Orlu where dogs are not permitted. It’s important to keep your dog on a lead whenever you’re in the vicinity of the estives (high pastures) as there will almost certainly be livestock; a dog running freely, however safe you know it to be, will incur the extreme wrath of any shepherds patrolling the area.
If you encounter a patou - a large white Pyrenean sheepdog, whose role it is to guard the flocks at liberty on the mountains - make sure your dog is well under control: they're not dangerous but they do take their job seriously!
WHAT TO CARRY
As a minimum: water, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, waterproof, compass, large scale walking map, mobile phone (fully charged), and some food (either lunch or ‘energy’ food such as cereal bars, chocolate or dried fruit). We’d strongly suggest also carrying a small emergency pack with survival blanket, some first aid items such as Compeed blister plasters (which have saved my bacon on more than one occasion) and bite/sting relief, a whistle plus a small torch or headlight. Some money is useful for a mid-walk drink if you're near civilisation or a refuge.
The weather in the Pyrenees is unpredictable and can change very quickly - we’ve known a thick blanket of fog to descend literally within minutes or a storm appear as if from nowhere. The pattern, particularly in July and August, tends to be clear weather in the morning with storms in late afternoon; sometimes storm clouds will brew up but no storm will break. The dividing line between ‘mountain’ weather and lower level weather is generally just a few kilometres south of our village; it’s quite possible for completely different weather to prevail on each side of the line!
It’s always best to check the forecast for the day in the morning before leaving. I use three main sites: Metéo France, La Chaine Metéo and - bizarrely - the Norwegian site yr.no which has a higher degree of accuracy more often than the French sites!
You may encounter snow at altitude up to the middle or end of June, particularly on shaded north facing slopes. Occasionally névé or hard packed snow may linger longer; be cautious of this as it’s especially slippery and demands respect.
We’re not fast walkers and on the whole we find the walk timings in most of the topo-guides pretty accurate. However … be aware that they assume continuous walking and don’t allow for stops to take photos, admire the view, have lunch, get your breath back after a steep climb, watch birds, examine flowers or butterflies or whatever. We like to do all of those things, so we tend to allow ourselves half as much time again for most walks. If you’re walking in October when the hours of daylight are considerably reduced, it's particularly important to judge your timing accurately on longer walks.
If you’re planning a long day walk it’s a good idea to start early in the morning, especially if you’re driving some distance or on slow pistes to get to your start point.
WATER AND SWIMMING
You’ll find any number of ‘sources’ (springs) in the mountains; we drink from these regularly and find it a treat. We also drink from high level streams with no ill effects, though others may be more cautious.
Swimming is expressly prohibited in some of the more accessible lakes such as the Etangs de Lers and de Bethmale, but it’s perfectly possible to swim in many of the higher lakes. It will always be a bracing rather than a balmy experience though!